Video

What’s the Value of Higher Education?

Have political and fiscal debates about higher education lost sight of the value of education for individuals and society? Dr. Johnnetta Cole discusses how universities can inform and inspire.



The value of a college degree can be measured in a number of different ways: increased lifetime earnings potential, a network of classmates and fellow alumni, subject-matter expertise, a signal of stick-to-itiveness, potentially a marker of class or the capacity to move across classes. There are also less tangible benefits, like becoming a more well-rounded individual and part of a well-informed public.

Yale Insights recently talked with Dr. Johnnetta Cole about how she measures the value of higher education. Cole is the former president of Spelman College and Bennett College, the only two historically black colleges and universities that are exclusively women’s colleges. After retiring from academia, she served as the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. In addition, she served on the boards of a number of corporations, including Home Depot, Merck, and Coca-Cola. She was the first African-American chair of the board for the United Way of America.


Q: Why does higher education matter? 

I would say that we could get widespread agreement on what I’m going to call the first purpose of higher education: through this amazingly powerful process of teaching and learning, students come to better understand the world. 

There might be some disagreement on the second purpose. I’d say it is to inspire students to figure out how they can contribute to helping to make the world better. Certainly, higher education is about scholarship, but it’s also about service. It’s about creativity. It’s about matters of the mind, but it’s also, or at least it should be, about matters of the heart and the soul. 

Q: Has the public perception of universities changed in recent years?

Throughout the history—and herstory—of higher education, there have been doubters, those who have critiqued it. But I have a concern, and some polls tell us, in this period in which we are living, many people believe that higher education is not contributing in a positive way to American life. 

That’s something that we need to work on, those of us who are deeply engaged in and care about higher education, because I think when one looks with as much objectivity as possible, the truth is, and it’s always been, that higher education contributes substantially. 

Q: You’ve led two historically black colleges for women. What is the role of special mission institutions? 

In my view, we still need special mission institutions. Remember Brandeis, Notre Dame, and Brigham Young are special mission institutions. 

With respect to historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), not every African American wants to or does go to an HBCU. The same is true of women and women’s colleges. But for those who wish that kind of education, and if the fit is right, it’s almost magical. 

I think it is as basic as having an entire community believe that you can. On these campuses, we believe that black students can do whatever they set their minds to do. On the women’s campuses, we believe that women can reach heights that have not been imagined for women. 

HBCUs are not totally free of racism. Women’s colleges are not utopias where there are no expressions of gender inequality or sexism. But they come far closer than at our predominately white and co-ed institutions. 

Q: One of the big issues with higher education now is cost. How do we solve the affordability problem?

The affordability question is highly complex and serious. James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” I believe that this is a perfect example. Colleges and universities are not just raising tuitions so they can make big profits. Pell grants are no longer at least a reasonable response to the affordability question. 

We’ve got to figure this out because, in a democracy, accessibility to education is fundamental. The idea that something as precious, as powerful, as a solid education is only accessible to some and not to others, is an assault upon democracy. 

Q: You came out of retirement to lead the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Why was the draw so strong?

I’ve managed, systematically, to get a failing grade in retirement. 

I grew up in the South, in the days of legalized segregation—you could also call it state-sponsored racism. I didn’t have access to symphony halls. I didn’t have access to art museums. I still remember the library that I went to in order to travel the world through books, was the A. L. Lewis Colored Public Library. 

As a young girl, I fell in love with the visual arts, especially African and African-American art. I went off to Fisk University at age 15 and began to see the real works of art for which we only had reproductions in my home. From Fisk, I went to Oberlin, where the Allen Memorial Art Gallery was a special place of solace for me

The opportunity with the Smithsonian wasn’t something I sought; I was asked to apply. My doctorate is in anthropology, not art history, so I was reluctant, but they told me they were looking for a leader, not an art historian. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. The work was an almost indescribable joy. 

Generally, our museums across America do not reflect who America is, nor do they reflect how our world looks. They need to be far more diverse in terms of their boards, staff, exhibitions, educational programs, and visitorship. 

What the African art museum has is a unique opportunity because it can speak to something that binds us together. If one is human, just go back far enough, I mean way back, and we have all come from a single place. It is called Africa. 

Here’s a museum that says to its visitors, “No matter who you are, by race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability or disability, or nationality, come to a place where the visual arts connect you to the very cradle of humanity.” 

During those eight years when I had the joy of being the director of the National Museum of African Art, I would greet our visitors by saying “Welcome home! Welcome to a place that presents the diverse and dynamic, the exquisite arts of Africa, humanity’s original home.” 

Q: Do you think that our education and cultural institutions are properly valued in our society?

I have to say no. Because if we did, we would take better care of them. If we did, we would make sure that not some but all of our educational institutions from kindergarten through post-secondary education, into graduate and professional schools, have the means to do what needs to be done. 

If we really value all of our cultural expressions, whether it’s dance or music, visual arts, theater, when there is a budget shortfall, we wouldn’t say, “These are the first things to go.” We wouldn’t say, “Kids can do without music in their public school.” It’s one thing to say we love an institution; it’s another to care for and protect an institution. I think we can do far better. 

President Emerita, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; President Emerita, Spelman College and Bennett College